Losing a Dog

February 18, 2021 § 2 Comments

When my son was four and our dog died, I checked out a pile of themed picture books from the library and we read them over and over for two weeks. Every time I asked my son how he was feeling, or whether he wanted to talk about what had happened, he walked over to the pile, grabbed a book off the top, and climbed into my lap. It shouldn’t have surprised me—after all, I have always turned to books to process life experiences—but it did. Before my eyes, I watched this small boy silently work out stuff right there on the page.

One of the most common requests I get from parents is for books about losing a dog or cat. There is no lack of picture books on the subject, but most of them are only OK. Some are beautiful, even profound, acknowledgments of loss—like this and this—and even though I love them, they tend towards the abstract. Others fall into the same trap that we parents do when our children are in pain: they are quick to reassure, to provide distraction, to provide replacement (The dog is happy in heaven! Let’s go pick out a new puppy!). Many pay lip service to the emotional upheaval that is grief, but few model what it means to make space for it.

In my personal experience, grief does not abate without time. Time can’t work alone, it won’t solve all things, but it creates distance, and with distance comes perspective and growth and opportunity. But in the wake of pain, time is at best uncomfortable; at worst it is infuriating, terrifying, and unfathomable. It’s no wonder we don’t like to acknowledge it, much less encourage our children to sit in it.

And yet, here’s a new picture book that does just that—and does it brilliantly. In Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island (Ages 4-8), a full year passes from the moment a girl loses her dog to the time her family welcomes a new one. In Cordell’s expert hands, this year unfolds slowly across every page turn. It unfolds while a girl spends her days on an island with a stick and a bear for company. It unfolds in the physical and mental space of the girl’s anger, sadness, boredom, regret, and fear.

Matthew Cordell won the Caldecott Medal in 2018 for his wordless picture book, Wolf in Snow, and while Bear Island is not wordless, it demonstrates his continued mastery of visual storytelling. There are no wasted words here, and some spreads communicate by picture alone, beginning with the book’s opening. Before the title page even shows up, we get five pages of pictures, a brief but resonant introduction to the bond between a girl and her dog, a bond shaken as the girl boxes up a well-worn baseball, a food dish, and other mementos. Two words say it all: “Goodbye, Charlie.”

The color palette, as it will remain for the first part of the story, is made up exclusively of browns. The lack of color is a nod to the emptiness, to the void left by this beloved pet. And yet, the browns are briefly interrupted by a wash of color on the title page, along with a butterfly, perhaps cuing the transformation we can expect. Color is coming, the shift seems to say, a subtle but effective way of nudging us through the initial sadness.

It is here that our story “officially” starts—in a house on a lake with an island. The girl, Louise, dons her boots and cap and, as she is long accustomed to doing, informs her parents she is taking the boat. As she rows the short distance to the tiny, uninhabited island, her thoughts dwell on her recent loss. She recalls how much Charlie used to enjoy these excursions.

On the island, Louise finds herself increasingly annoyed by the quiet. Finally, in a fit of rage, she “thwacks” a tree with a stick, yelling to see if any living being will notice or care.

And something does happen. For starters, butterflies appear, bringing with them a hint of color. There are deer, too, who nuzzle Louise’s hand.

But just as Louise feels an inkling of hope, the tranquil scene is interrupted by a bear, charging through the trees with his hot breath and his monstrous RROOAARR!! Anyone who has been in the throes of loss knows the tendency grief has to dwarf other emotions; and though Louise is afraid, she is “Angry to be made afraid. Angry about Charlie. Angry about here, now, and before.” Rather than retreat, she goes straight after the bear with her own ROOAARR!!

As the bear quickly sinks to the ground, Louise recognizes something of herself in him: “a familiar sadness.”

Louise keeps returning to the island, day after day. Some days, she notices the bear seems better. Some days, she notices herself feeling better. Rarely, she notices, are the days the same for her and the bear. Time is passing, but grief is not always linear.

In time, the two begin to connect. They wander the island. They swim in the water. They pass a stick between them. There are occasional moments of smiles, of wild abandon, before grief returns once more. Still, “[t]hey were changing on the island.”

Things also begin to change at home. A series of panels depicts Louise with her parents: eating meals, raking leaves, reading stories, washing dishes. The stuff of everyday life, swooping down to hold us in our vigil. A snowfall cues the arrival of another season.

Winter days are shorter on the island, but Louise still pays regular visits. Then, one day, she comes upon the bear getting ready “to bed down for winter.” It dawns on Louise that another loss is looming. The two regard each other in one of the most powerful spreads in the book. Despite being a wild animal, the bear’s face is warmly expressive (much, I might add, like a dog’s).

As Louise rows home, the palette returns to brown, and in the next page, we find Louise crouched down, brushing snow from Charlie’s gravestone. “‘It’s not fair,’ thought Louise, ‘…when the things we love must end.’”

And yet, Louise enters her house to find her parents waiting, smiling, a new puppy between them. Endings, the text reminds us, are also beginnings, when we’re ready to greet them.

But a clever page turn reveals there’s more! What happens when Louise returns to the island that spring, this time with her new dog, Milly? The two search and search for the bear, but what they find instead reminds us that we are often our own best friends in times of grief. Our resilience is primal; it connects us with the natural world, with the cycle of life around us. We have only to yield to it. We have only to wait.

Other Favorites About Losing a Dog or Cat:

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